Why you should love Zidane

Watched the world cup final last night which was of course marred/made memorable by Zidane’s headbutt and red card. I’ve been puzzling about this. He was about ten minutes away from being remembered as the greatest French player ever, probably overtaking Platini. And I think that is the key to his action. He could see the endless smug after dinner speeches, the fawning chat show appearances, the publicity work with Blatter and Chirac. It was a frightening epiphany. So he committed reputation suicide. Now he can enjoy his retirement in peace. You’ve got to admire that. More people should do it I think and save themselves from a kind of self-congratulatory purgatory.

The A word

I was looking at the draft theses of two of my PhD students last week. One is in the area of theoretical artificial intelligence, and particularly non-conceptual content. The other is in the area of learner experience and decision making. Two very different fields, but both had made use of the concept of affordances. This  demonstrates one of two things:

i) Affordances are such a powerful concept that they have application in multiple domains.

ii) It has become so meaningless that you can apply them to any domain

I have used the term myself quite a bit, and it crops up in my new book. Personally I find it a useful way of thinking about how technologies influence behaviour. But it is a loaded term and you can blithely stick it on a PowerPoint slide and then find yourself spending your entire talk defining the term and justifying your use of it. I accept that its usage has become a bit slippery, and decidedly post-Gibsonian, but I think it does get at something which we instinctively feel about objects. Something about the way they suggest, or promote, a certain use. It becomes particularly tricky (but also particularly useful) when you talk about affordances of higher level cognitive functions. For instance you can say that instant messaging affords a certain type of communication. Now it can be argued that this is nothing to do with affordances and more to do with social norms. In some ways I don’t think the distinction is important. One could relabel it ‘technological compliance’ if you wanted (although affordance is a nicer term). Put simply it goes something like – if you put someone in a Ferrari, they drive faster. This could be an affordance of the car, or it could be that they have a social model of behaviour for people driving Ferrari’s. From a psychological perspective the underlying mechanism may be significant, but from an educational technology one, I suspect it is not.

Mind you, I do have some sympathy with those who bemoan its over-use. Hutto for example argues that "Affordance at its best is explanatorily superfluous and metaphysically extravagant".

As an aside, look at that quote – don’t you just love arguments between philosophers? Personally I think the next reality TV show should be ‘Get me out of here, I’m an intellectual’. Lots of bearded white men in a jungle strutting around saying ‘My dear man, you’re just being metaphysically extravagant".

Death of broadcast?

I am part of the Broadcast Strategy Review group at the OU at the moment. This is currently realised through our relationship with the BBC, with the general audience programmes and the excellent open2.net stuff. But in an e-learning, internet age the very definition of broadcast needs to be re-examined.  The OU needs to reexamine what it means from pedagogic value and return on investment perspectives. To put it crudely, is it better to have 10 high quality programmes or 10,000 lower quality podcasts/feeds. There are a number of issues here:

Quality – generally people are prepared lower quality on a lot of internet media, e.g. podcasts, video clips, etc because they are getting material closer to their needs. There is a trade off here between appropriateness and production quality.

Integration with courses – the traditional OU model was to make programmes for specific courses (you get minus ten points if you mention kipper ties here). The last agreement was focused around more general interest programmes, fulfilling an outreach function. An internet focused model has the potential to be course, or subject area specific.

New models of outreach – TV is the broadcast medium par excellence, and much has been made of the difficult to market things on the net. However, there are effective models, and also initiatives like the Open Content project have the possibility of fulfilling the outreach function.

Range of providers – put bluntly, if you want to make TV programmes then the BBC are your best bet of partner, and there is a pretty limited pool to choose from. If you want internet content (be it regular feeds, multimedia, podcasts, articles, etc) then the choice of providers is much broader (although BBC online is probably amongst the best here too).

This will be a consultative review, and I don’t know what the conclusions will be, but it strikes me as one of those zeitgeist projects, so I’m quite excited about it.

Academic publishing – a rant

As I mentioned I had an article (The Distance from Isolation) accepted for publication in Computers and Education. It has now been ‘in press’ for over a year now, with no indication as to when it will actually be published. By the time it is, it will be out of date. I’m sure it’s not the case but it reminds me of Chelsea FC – they buy the best players not with an intention of playing them but simply to stop other teams having them.

This is but one example of the very strange world of academic publishing. For those who don’t engage in it, the deal goes something like this:

  • Academics provide the content
  • Academics do the reviewing
  • Academics often do the editing
  • Publishers print it and sell it back to academics
  • Authors are often restricted from making their own work publicly available
  • Authors receive no payment for the published work

Not an entirely fair system one would have thought, but because journal publication is tied up with academic esteem, promotion and the rather pernicious RAE, it is a process many of us feel compelled to go along with.

Thankfully the tide is turning and there are a number of different models for publishing now, including online journals, open content and err, blogs I guess.

Decentralisation of Higher Ed

John Naughton’s inaugural lecture last week reminded me of a paper I wrote about online communities Download distance_ho.doc (this is not a coincidence as some of the ideas in the paper were informed by a conversation I had with John once about the differences between broadcast media and the Net, and much of the knowledge of the net’s technical structure is derived from John’s book A Brief History of the Future). In it I argue that the key technological features of the internet are openness, decentralisation and robustness. These in turn became the social values of the internet also. If you want to know what technologies or approaches will succeed on the net then compare how well they score against these three features.

I go on to argue that online communities are therefore a natural end point in education. This part is maybe less so well argued, but I think the technology/social features part does carry some truth. The key point for higher education is in decentralisation. Higher education is all about centralisation. Universities acted as an information store, which students needed to come to in order to gain that knowledge. Now that information is decentralised this role is undermined. Of course it reveals what is in fact a more substantial role, and that is sensemaking of information. But in essence I think universities are based on a centralisation model and the next generation of students are accustomed to decentralisation. This raises big issues for universities which impact upon the content they provide, the technologies they use, the support they offer, the type of accreditation they approve and their partnerships with other institutions.

I also like this paper because its title (the distance from isolation) is from a Larkin poem, Talking in Bed. I like to think there aren’t that many Larkin/e-learning cross-overs. The paper itself was accepted for the journal Computers and Education (see next posting for a rant on this).

The enthusiasm of the new convert

I was at the University of West England yesterday for a validation event. They are creating an online software engineering course. I was struck by the enthusiasm they had for e-learning in general. I forget that it can strike people this way. Back in 1999 I came across like some e-learning Billy Graham, but now I tend to think everyone knows it, or am wary of over-hyping it. But it was nice to be reminded of this. They were excited about how e-learning allowed them to do things they had always wanted to do, but the lecture format didn’t allow, for example getting students to do an activity immediately after giving them the knowledge or an example, or staggering lots of smaller assessments throughout a course.

I (verb) therefore I am (annoying/important)

A friend of mine was commenting on the way in which verbs seem to hold more sway than any other catagory of word. People don’t mind if you invent a new noun, and will chuckle politely if you coin a new adjective, but to create a new verb is to invite the wrath of language purists everywhere. And related to this, you know a technology has become significant when you can use it as a verb and both be understood and escape physical abuse. So in any one day I may blog, google or skype. As yet I would hesitate in public to say I flickr or wiki, and I can’t see the day when I would ever utter ‘I delicioused it’, but you get the idea. Probably a warning to companies or developers – try using your product/technology name as a verb – if you wince at it then try a different one.

Social social software

My friend and colleague John Naughton gave his inaugural lecture yesterday. Afterwards a few of us were invited to the Vice Chancellor’s house for dinner. There I met some people who I hadn’t seen for a while (such as Quentin Stafford-Fraser), and some I hadn’t met before. What struck me was that because I subscribe to John’s Blog I feel that I know a lot of these people already, or have maintained contact with them through their blogs or Flickr photostreams.

This reminded me that when I was in Como last week, I often found myself thinking about the situation in terms of a prospective blog post, or taking photos with Flickr in mind. I think this social life of social software, ie the social impact it has in actuall face to face situations, as opposed to the more obvious online community, is less appreciated. It is also an antidote to the grumpy old men/women who claim that the internet is ruining real social skills. On the contrary, I had an interesting conversation last night based on having viewed someone’s Flickr photostream, which wouldn’t have been possible had it not been public. Similarly, I think that many people take up, or increase their interest in photography because of the presence of Flickr, far more than any photographic exhibition. There is a direct push back in to the real world from the virtual one that makes people more engaged with it, not less.

The constraint of choice (and a dodgy football analogy)

Watching England play on Saturday made me think about VLEs (that is not a sentence many people will write I expect). Whether that was an indication of my current VLE monomania as I complete the book, or an indictment of the quality of the game, I’m not sure. All football fans suffer from the ‘football as a metaphor for anything’ complaint, and here is another. I appreciate that to actually understand the analogy you need to have a good grasp of both VLEs and football, so it fails the first test of being a useful means of explaining one topic by mapping to another, but hey, how often do you get to talk about service oriented architectures and Steven Gerrard in the same post?

One of England’s problems has been an embarrassment of riches in midfield (VLE people stick with me for a bit). They have both Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, both of who are attacking midfielders. But when they are placed together they curb their natural appetite to go forward with the result that neither plays as well as they do for their clubs. Eriksson has been paralysed by his options here and always plays both (one feels that if he had been the England manager in the early 80s he would have played Shilton in goal and Clemence at right back to avoid choosing between the two). The tough decision would be to play a holding midfielder, who isn’t as good as either, and allow the remaining one full scope. The argument being that it’s better to have 100% of either than 50% of both. It would probably be a blessing for England if one of them got injured and thus forced this change.

And now, onto the VLE bit. Well, not just VLEs, but any software, and maybe even strategic decision. What the England situation demonstrates is that choice is not always liberating. When we were considering VLE options for the OU, we knew that a full service oriented architecture was the most appropriate, but were concerned that such an implementation would get mired in debate as to the best way to achieve it. Choosing an open source option, in our case Moodle, is a good compromise here, since it overcomes much of that debate – you have to do things the Moodle way. One loses some choice, because you are constrained to doing things the Moodle way, but that actually saves you a lot of time. It is akin to one of Gerrard/Lampard being injured but the balance of the team benefiting as a result.

There, I’m glad I’ve got that out of my system. Tomorrow – the link between Ronaldinho and social bookmarking….

Notte Bianca

Tonight was the Notte Bianca (white night) festival in Como. Let it not be said that they don’t know how to party. Unfortunately I had to be up at 6 to get my flight home. I managed to get some sleep around 2.30 but was awoken by bed-rattling fireworks half an hour later. Still it was a lot of fun, and I have enjoyed Como – I think I’ll come back with my family when I don’t have any of that work stuff to do (although maybe I won’t stay on the main square during festival night next time).

Houses in Como

Houses in Como remind me of children trying to peak over each others shoulders in order to gain a better view of a playground fight.

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